Although recognition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s enormous role in shaping blues and rock guitar playing has grown in recent years, she is still too often overlooked in discussions of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential pioneers.
However, a recently released mini-documentary by Gibson, Shout, my sister, shout! Sister Rosetta Tharpeseeks to help change that.
Narrated by Celisse – best known for her guitar work with Lizzo – and featuring Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/guitarist Amythyst Kiah, Shout, my sister, shout! explains how Tharpe blended the passion and spirituality of the gospel she was raised with with fierce electric guitar playing, which – with its power, aggression and high-volume virtuosity – was decades ahead of his time.
The nine-minute film – which you can see above – also deals with Tharpe’s 1951 wedding ceremony at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC. Held in front of 25,000 paying patrons, the ceremony was followed by a live stadium performance that predated the Beatles’ US stadium tours and Elvis Presley scandal by more than a decade. Ed Sullivan Show five-year-old appearance.
As the film progresses, Tharpe’s commercial success in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s came at a time when racial segregation was the law of the land in the American South. While touring the South, Tharpe often suffered the indignity of being forced to sleep in her tour bus, while her white bandmates and touring mates slept in hotel rooms.
“While we think of a bus like [this] image of ‘oh you made it if you got a tour bus’, knowing that for her it was literally survival, it really shines a light on the shoulders I’m standing on,” Kiah says in the film.
In tribute to Tharpe’s legendary 1964 concert at the abandoned Wilbraham Road station in Manchester, England, Celisse and Kiah also perform – along with Custom Shop replicas of Tharpe’s favorite 1961 Les Paul SG Custom – a rendition of Didn’t it rain at a station.
“She [Tharpe] fascinated audiences and inspired countless blues-loving players across the Atlantic, the likes of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards,” says Celisse. “There’s an endless list of artists who have borrowed from Sister Rosetta – people like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, even me!
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born to be on stage and channel her joy of faith through her powerful voice and volcanic playing. She took audiences to church and her male contemporaries playing guitar to school.
“Although it took decades to finally give her her due,” Celisse concludes, “there is no debating that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the undisputed founding mother of rock ‘n’ roll.”
In addition to the film, Gibson is also celebrating Tharpe’s legacy with a new line of merchandise – including posters, shirts, jackets, pennants and a guitar strap – featuring the guitarist and her trademark, la Les Paul SG with three pickups.
To see the full line of products, stop by Gibson.